A new frontier in crime investigation relies on the ultimate tracking device—and it’s right in your purse or pocket, the New York Times reports. Detectives nationwide are inundating Google with warrants to mine its so-called Sensorvault, which holds tracking data from most Android phones and some iPhones worldwide over nearly the past decade. Google employees say they receive up to 180 such requests weekly and hand over anonymous location data “where legally required.” Police can follow device-data linked to crime scenes and, once narrowed down, receive names, email addresses, and other personal data from Google. Police admit these “geofence” warrants are exciting but caution they’re no slam dunk, either.
“It doesn’t pop out the answer like a ticker tape, saying this guy’s guilty,” says a senior Washington State prosecutor. “We’re not going to charge anybody just because Google said they were there.” Detectives have pressed Google for data to help with cases including arson (WRAL), robberies (Forbes), and even bombings (affidavit), but privacy advocates warn that innocent people can be ensared. The Times highlights the case of Arizona resident Jorge Molina, who was collared in a 2018 murder investigation based on his location data but later freed when a new suspect emerged. Now Molina has no job (he was arrested at work) and no car (it was impounded and repossessed). Police “had good intentions,” says his public defender, but “they’re hyping it up to be this new DNA type of forensic evidence, and it’s just not.” (Read more Google stories.)